16 April 2013 – Andrew Gilligan’s imagination got the better of him this weekend when he sought to expose a European Union plot to hand over control of the press to the state.
The MediaWise Trust, a registered charity which has spent 20 years assisting people with complaints about unfair, intrusive or inaccurate coverage by the print and broadcast media, is named as one of the conspirators in this plot. In part this is because we are associated with an international academic research project looking at formal and informal systems of media accountability – from Press Council to media bloggers.
The MediaAct Project also examines media transparency issues, which may be why some media owners are less keen on the idea. The research project was developed by the Erich Brost Institute for Journalism in Dortmund. Brost was a publisher who endowed the Institute ‘to promote practise, the knowledge of and the research on journalism in Europe’.
As the project leaflet – published in 2010 – explains: ‘The main goal is to provide evidence-based analysis for all stakeholders in the news media with a view to enhance press freedom and journalism standards and to assist the European Union in the development of policies that encourage self regulation.’
By no stretch of the imagination can this be called an attempt ‘to seek state control of the press.’ Indeed a key element in the research has been an extremely detailed survey of journalists in 14 countries which came out firmly against state control, and which showed that the majority of journalists relied upon the conscience rather than their management when it came to ethical judgements.
The project received €1,468,811 (approximately £1.25m) from the EU to fund research by 11 partner institutions over a 3.5 year period. Although MediaWise was invited to represent the UK we could not afford to subsidise it and the contract passed to the University of the West of England (UWE). As a result UWE should eventually be recompensed for the staff time, travel and accommodation at seven international events, plus equipment and overheads at what is called Full Economic Costing – in line with the new approach to treating the academy as if it were a business. The most it can hope to reclaim is £118,714 – around £30,000 a year and considerably less than Mr Gilligan earns.
A colleague and I, assisted on occasion by other journalists, have handled the bulk of this work. Our time is paid for by the university which employs us. According to Gilligan, and to the Daily Mail (15 April), ‘MediaAcT, has channelled about £100,000 of European cash directly to a key Hacked Off ally, the Mediawise campaign group’. Factually wrong on a number of counts – EU funding is not ‘channelled’ to MediaWise. It is paid, in arrears and after extensive auditing, to the university to pay its costs.
Gilligan is correct in saying that the EU money does not appear in MediaWise accounts; as I explained to him, the charity is not entitled to and does not receive it. If he is seeking to suggest something improper, his article could be actionable, as might a story based on his which appeared in marketing magazine, The Drum. Consequently his remark that ‘The EU payments appear to account for almost all of MediaWise’s recent income’, is both incorrect, as I told him, and in the context might be considered malicious. Our accounts are there for all to see on our website. Those for 2010-11 explain our links to the MediaAcT project and show that we received an advance from the Erich Brost Institute to cover the travel and subsistence costs of two people attending two MediaAcT events in Germany and Estonia.
While MediaWise may be seen as ‘a key Hacked Off ally’ we have been around a lot longer and we are not a ‘campaign group’ but a registered charity. Like several other websites Hacked Off has carried articles which originally appeared on our website. Had Gilligan bothered he could have read our 7 Nov 2012 statement ‘Who is talking about statutory CONTROL of the Press?’ which rather undermines his own case.
He is wrong again in claiming that MediaWise ‘was created by Clive Soley, the then Labour MP, who was one of the first politicians in the recent era to attempt to introduce state regulation of the press.’ Clive Soley’s Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill was an attempt to establish an independent body to defend press freedom and adjudicate on complaints against the press, after the Press Complaints Commission had been found wanting a year after its creation. And PressWise, as it was originally called, was set up by ‘victims of media abuse’ after his Bill was defeated. The idea came from the 70 people who attended a meeting of victims in parliament to which the press were invited but chose not to attend. Clive supported PressWise but was not even present when they came up with the idea.
Gilligan also asserts that in one of MediaAct’s ‘papers’ I call for press regulation on the grounds that it will “ensure that minority views and voices are heard”’. Again wrong on several counts. Firstly Mapping media accountability in Europe and beyond is an academic tome, and secondly in what was a co-authored and detailed historical summary of media accountability in the UK (‘From the Gentlemen’s Club to the Blogosphere’), my colleague and I reported that: ‘Many civil society groups support regulation, to ensure that minority views and voices are heard, citing the public service value of journalism to empower citizens and enhance democracy.’ That is not our opinion, it is a statement of fact which Gilligan chose to misreport.
Nor is MediaAcT ‘calling for the kind of “media accountability” favoured by Hacked Off and other such groups’, as Gilligan avers. It has yet to publish its findings, and as an apolitical research project concerned with media pluralism, press freedom and self-regulation, it is very unlikely to promote state control.
If Mr Gilligan dislikes the press being vilified for inaccuracy and unfairness he had better set his own house in order first. He could do no better than to start by fact-checking all three of his vitriolic attacks on those who wish to promote accuracy and fairness in journalism.